Useful collections, as seen from an art museum?

The last year I’ve been working in a museum of mainly Norwegian and Western art, architecture and design –the National Museum of such actually- in Oslo, Norway. Here are no worries about offending the source communities of the works in the collection and like I wrote in the review of one of their exhibitions there seems to be an artistic freedom in art museums that anthropologists can only dream of (if so inclined).

Yet, the National Museum does of course worry about being relevant and one of the goals of the museum is naturally to attract new types of public –in addition to the majority of well-educated, fairly middle-aged, white and female visitors they already have.

And a national museum does have a fairly complex source community to keep in tune with.  It is supposed to represent the nation, the people, “us”… Norway, its people and the world have changed a little since the first National Museum of art in Oslo opened in 1837. Or even since the fusion including architecture, design and contemporary art was established in 2003.

Among its official aims are to increase “historical awareness and multi-cultural openness”. This year is the Munch year, 2014 will be the 100 year anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution. Therefore I’m pleased to notice that “we”, the National Museum, have invited external curators  from TraP to make an exhibition that should question the social role and relevance of the museum today.

Looking forward to “not limited to any particular subjects” and a return to the anthropology of art:)

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Am I guilty? Does it help that I feel guilty?

In some of my posts and the report I have mentioned something I call “anthropological guilt”.

I use that term to describe how I as a Western anthropologist often feel guilty because of specific or even possible wrongdoings of “my ancestors” (earlier anthropologists, explorers or simply “white people”). In small portions I think it is good, as it makes you careful and sensitive to possible tensions. Yet with too much of it there is little communication and limited possibility of reaching new understandings.

A little too much of anthropological guilt did for example manifest itself when I wanted to talk with Alaska Natives about the Smithsonian Artic Study Center and its projects. I wanted to ask about how they value the possibility of seeing their ancestors’ artefacts online compared to seeing them in person. And I wanted to talk about repatriation. Yet I was too afraid to be accused with questions of how these objects had ended up in the Smithsonian and why some might never be repatriated. So I didn’t dear to ask and this limited the outcome of my project.

And this happened despite the fact that in a talk in Anchorage at the beginning of my fieldwork the Native Alaska anthropologist and museum director Sven Haakonson argued that whites and Natives should dare to talk openly about difficult parts of the past -instead of politely avoiding the topic. That this is the only way to put insecurity behind us and create really trusting relationships.

My earlier experience from doing fieldwork among very outgoing and direct people on Rapa Nui had taught me that they could find it pleasing to see humble anthropologists, but in most cases people will not really be accused for wrongdoings of their predecessors. In certain situations such accusations could be used politically, but were not meant to be something personal. Yet this didn’t help me much.

Having a timid personality has probably not helped either, but is this feeling of ancestral guilt something most anthropologists (or other researchers) feel limited by?

And if it is more limiting than useful, how to overcome it?


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Tale of an Elephant…and Others.

NMNH RotundaNMNH Elephant and RotundaDinosaur Hall T-RexDinosaur Hall 2NMNH in the FallOld NMNH Black and White

Entering the majestetic old building of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History from the equally impressive National Mall in Washington D.C. you meet an elephant. A mounted African elephant greets you and the around 7 million visitors coming through the doors every year -and though it is not that old the scene looks as timeless as the museum itself.

After maybe taking your photo with the elephant you can go right to the classic Hall of Dinosaurs, left to the Hall of Mammals or straight ahead to the newer St Ocean Hall. Further a fields in this immense museum you meet live butterflies, giant gems, Egyptian mummies, an Easter Island moai statue and human ancestors like Lucy. Overall 1.5 million square feet of space and 325,000 square feet of exhibition and public space; the size of 18 football fields and over 1000 employees.

It is easy to get overwhelmed, and if you get into the office halls and backstage of the museum it seems you are supposed to loose your way. Like in the film ”Being John Malcowich” (1999) where an office building had a ”5th and ½” floor the NMNH building has more floors in the newer parts than in the oldest.

There are not many references to it in the exhibitions and getting there might involve several returns to the elephant in the rotunda, but the NMNH also holds a Department of Anthropology and an Artic Studies Center (ASC).

This was where my stay at the Smithsonian started and ended, with a long detour to ASC’s office in Anchorage, Alaska.

Now my preliminary report of this fellowship stay can be found as a separate page on this blog (see top menu). Yet, it feels like I’m still only barely grasping the tail of an elephant and the tale is slow to take form.

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Unhappy holidays? “Christmas Spirit” and the “gift of grief”.

Does Christmas make you sad? And will a gallery/museum near you be lucky enough to give you the “gift of grief”? While hoping everyone are enjoying happy holidays I just want to recommend a Christmas related and wonderful work of art that I got to see a preview of at the NMNH.

As part of the Recovering Voices seminar series, Australian anthropologist Jennifer Deger, presented (Sept 21, 2011) the video installation “Christmas Birrimbirr” (Christmas Spirit) and a powerful Christmas ritual in a Yolngu community in North Australia.

When Christmas approaches the people in Gapuwiyak start remembering their dear ones they have lost and get together to cry and grieve them, while at the same time decorating the village in Christmas colors and listening to songs like “All I Want for Christmas Is You”.

As a co-operation between two Yolngu directors, an anthropologist (Deger) and a video artist this ritual has been wrapped as a three screen video installation for museums and galleries where outsiders can take part in what they call the “gift of grief”.

And even though being a complete outsider to Yolngu culture and only seeing a preview of the work I really felt it was a gift. It reminded me that grieving can be good, as a step in a process of moving on and as a contrast making one more grateful for the good things in life.

So I hope this art work will make its way to a museum/gallery near you, and meanwhile you can read a review on this blog.


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Carol for another Christmas and new year (and new possibilities!)

As I hastened home from town after some last shopping I noticed a middle-aged man walking unsteadily, barefoot in far too big shoes, and holding up a winter jacket in front of him, like a little boy carrying a star in a Christmas parade. Just as I tried to pass by him he turned and said with lights in his eyes: ”Nice jacket, right?! Christmas present for my son!” The jacket was of an expensive brand and judging by the man’s appearance it looked far too nice to be something he could have bought. I just answered ”Oh, yes, nice!” and walked on. I felt uncomfy thinking that he must have stolen it and even more by the thought that his son probably will think the same…and with that blow out the stars in this father’s eyes.

And this is Oslo 2011. In one of the richest countries in the world, home of Santa Claus and the Nobel Peace prize. In a cosy little capital where a terror attack last July provoked not so much shock and anger, as public display of love, compassion and words about how we are all family. Five months later most of us still feel uncomfortable talking to strangers and there are just as many people living on the street. Some of us even criticize the government for a little temporary shortage of butter because of people trying a fat slimming diet!

And this is me. Thinking big thoughts and doing little about them.

But as I wanted to say to that man with the jacket: I really hope you will get a Merry Christmas and a even Happier New Year.

(And hopefully I will get to do a little more in 2012.)

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Art as useful inspiration/provocation? Notes from the Arts Council Norway conference 2011.

To get some inspiration for the “writing up” of my fellowship project I went to Lillehammer (2,5 hrs north of Oslo) and the annual meeting place for museum people in Norway -which from now on is the conference of “Kulturrådet” (Arts Council Norway). This is the new home of the national archives and museums authorities, as well as the arts of course, and the marriage was reflected in the conference theme and question: What happens in the meetings between art, archives and museums?

Ahead of the conference there was a “blog relay” discussing this and my last post (in Norwegian) a contribution to that. With the example of the exhibition “Wunderkammer of Formlessness” in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Oslo I wrote about artistic use of ethnographic objects and the dilemmas it can pose to an anthropologist. On one hand I find it exciting simply that forgotten collections are being used (as it might attract new audiences), yet on the other I always worry that exhibiting ethnographic objects as art will seem disrespectful to their source communities. In Alaska it did cross my mind that the ethnographic objects in the “Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage” could look estheticized with its lack of elaborate labels (if ignoring the accompanying touch screens), but that exhibition was made in cooperation with the source communities (i.e.  the “toes”  anthropologists are afraid of stepping on).

In Lillehammer, artist/musician Espen Sommer Eide provoked historians during the first panel debate of the conference by saying that as an artist he didn’t have to care about misuse of sources and meanings of his work (though as some tweeters remarked it seemed to be in an ironic tone). In “The Sound of Dead Languages” he is making audio art of old recordings of Skolt Sami and other threatened languages. The historians wanted to know who is talking or what they are saying, the artist seemed only interested in the sound. Though his questions: “What is a language? What do we loose when a language dies?” can make people wonder, and again, the simple fact that an artist pays attention to language death might make new audiences interested in language revitalization. And to hear that the upcoming museum of Skolt Sami will use his installation “Language Memory” to welcome its visitors makes me think there is more to this art than “just nice sound”. However could something like this be possible inspiration for the Recovering Voices program I studied at the Smithsonian?

Through the project Museale forstyrrelser (“Museum disturbances”) the Arts Council Norway has encouraged heritage museums to invite artists to make works that can make people reflect upon history, heritage and heritage institutions. Personally I find such artistic disturbances exciting and useful for getting attention and new perspectives. However, can it somehow look like “bringing in clowns” to mess with the sources academics cannot, will not or dare not do themselves? At the end of the conference a historian proposed that the next step would be to invite academics to “disturb” in art museums -but how disturbing would that be?

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Blogstafett: Pinner på rekke mellom glitrende stein.

Ps: This post is a contribution to a “blog relay” ahead of the Arts Council Norway’s 2011 conference and therefore written in Norwegian. I wrote about an example of artistic (re)use of ethnographic collections and will write more in my next post.

På en tur i Kvadraturen her om dagen var jeg plutselig midt i granskogen. Nei, ingen Wunderbaumhallusinasjon, men virkelige, dryssende, luktende grantrær så tett at jeg måtte bøye av grener for å komme videre -og nærmere. For der, innimellom trær og monumentale steinsøyler, en ugle på en stubbe med en geishalignende skygge bak seg og, i en av flere utstillingsmontre, pinner på rekke mellom glitrende stein og en bordklokke i sølv.

I "Formløshetens Wunderkammer", 11.11.11

Her tror jeg det kan passe å bukke, neie og takke så mye for pinnen i denne bloggstafetten i forkant av Kulturrådets årskonferanse. Det har vært mye inspirerende lesning så langt og all honnør til Hege Huseby for et sprekt initiativ.

Skogturen i Oslo sentrum har nok mange gjenkjent som Kirstine Roepstorffs utstilling ”Formløshetens Wunderkammer” i Museet for samtidskunst (23.okt 2011-19.feb 2012). Inspirert eller provosert av opplysningstidens kuriositetskabinetter kombinerer Roepstorff her egne kunstverk og eiendeler med lånte gjenstander fra naturhistoriske og kulturhistoriske museer. En brudekrone fra Kunstindustrimuseet blant steiner fra Geologisk museum og appelsinskiver som kunstneren har tørket selv. Ingen etiketter, men hvis man finleser oversiktskartet kan man finne at ”pinnene” jeg så er australske tryllemidler utlånt fra Kulturhistorisk museums (KHM) etnografiske samling. Gjenstandene kan i følge utstillingens kurator ses som fragmenter av et privat univers som alle kan forholde seg til på et personlig plan. Og hele utstillingen blir en enorm collage av dekontekstualiserte og rekontekstualiserte objekter som kan tolkes som kritikk av hierarkiseringen i det eurosentriske kunsthistorieperspektiv.

Som antropolog kunne jeg reagere på mangelen av kontekst og bekymre meg for hva de ulike opphavssamfunnene ville ha syntes om å stille ut kulturarven deres slik. Men på en annen side, i kunstmuseer er jo nesten alt lov og opp gjennom tidene har mye vært lov i etnografiske utstillinger også. Og som museumsarbeider som ivrer etter å få nytt liv i gamle samlinger fryder det meg at en kunstner i det hele tatt har funnet frem til KHMs etnografiske samling. Det er først nå at denne samlingen har kommet på nett, dokumentasjonen er fortsatt mangelfull, det er det lite rom for deltakelse og nettpubliseringen har ikke akkurat tatt publikum med storm ennå.

Nå er det sannsynligvis ikke Roepstroffs misjon å skape blest om samlingene hun lånte gjenstander fra og hvis publikum fester seg ved disse i denne utstillingen så er det nok heller med tanker om hvor lite relevante, eurosentriske og politisk problematiske slike gamle etnografiske samlinger kan synes å være. Dette er en utfordring for etnografiske museer, men de har et ansvar i forhold til opphavssamfunnene og det positive er jo at det er mye rom for forbedring. I rettferdighetens navn er det også noe KHM har prøvd å gjøre noe med –blant annet gjennom utstillingsprosjektet ”Verdien av X” med samtidskunstneren Filipe Tohi fra Tonga. Som så mange andre i glokaliseringens tidsalder søker Tohi i sine kulturhistoriske røtter og bruker gamle polynesiske knutemønstre som inspirasjon for sine skulpturer. Gjennom samarbeid med KHMs Oseania-ansvarlig Arne Perminow fikk Tohi studere polynesiasamlingen og stille ut egne verk side om side med utvalgte etnografiske gjenstander. Nå ble ikke potensialet for publikumsaktiviteter fullt utnyttet her, men flere prosjekter med kunstnere med personlige bånd til gjenstandene og aktiv involvering av museumspublikum kan nok også gjøre samlinger som denne mer “nyttige” i min forstand: relevante, interessante og brukt.

Jeg takker for meg og vil blant annet følge videre med på kunsteres og etnografers bruk av Weltkulturen Labor som Hanne Cecilie Gulstad skrev om i forrige innlegg og venter spent på hva Hanne S. Ø. Butvillo vil dele med oss i det neste. Ses på Lillehammer!

Dette innlegget er en del av en bloggstafett i anledning Kulturrådets årskonferanse Fortiden for tiden –møter mellom museer, arkiv og kunst. Oversikt over alle deltakere og publiserte innlegg finner du i innlegget Stafett – lagoppsettet på

Forrige innlegg, “Kunstnerisk bruk av arkivmateriale” er skrevet av Hanne Cecilie Gulstad, student, Moderne kultur og kulturformidling, Københavns Universitet, neste innlegg “Industridesign -i grenseland mellom arkiv, kunst og museum”  er skrevet av Hanne S. Ø. Butvillo ved Berger Museum.

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